Anat Kutznetzov-Zalmanson’s parents hijacked a plane, and she wants the world to know about it.
Sylva Zalmanson and Eduard Kuznetzov’s only real crime was that they wanted to leave the USSR and live freely as Jews in Israel.
To their daughter, a filmmaker, they are heroes who jumpstarted the movement to free Soviet Jewry, not the criminals the Soviet government made them out to be, sentencing one to death and the other to years of hard labor.
When Kuznetzov-Zalmanson, 32, was a child in Israel, people would approach her parents in the street and embrace them. Teachers would ask her to tell their story in class. But now, several decades later, most people, especially young ones, know very little, if anything, about the Prisoners of Zion who fought for human rights and permission to emigrate from the behind the Iron Curtain. If they are asked about refuseniks, the only name to spring to mind is often that of former Israeli politician Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
They almost certainly have no knowledge of the 16 people (14 of them Jews) led by Zalmanson and Kuznetzov, who attempted to hijack a plane from the USSR to Sweden on June 13, 1970, in a desperate bid to attract the world’s attention to their plight.
The attempt, known as “Operation Wedding,” failed, and all the members of the group were arrested. Most were tried Dec. 15 of that year, and on Dec. 24, Kuznetzov and Mark Dymshits, a Red Army pilot from Leningrad who was going to fly the plane, were sentenced to death. Zalmanson was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, and the others were sentenced to between four and 15 years.
Kuznetzov-Zalmanson, a graduate of film schools in Israel and London, has always wanted to tell her parents’ story cinematically. Ultimately, she’d like to make a feature film, but for now is focused on getting a documentary off the ground.
“I’ve been trying to make the film for the past three years,” Kuznetzov-Zalmanson told The Times of Israel by phone from New York, where she‘s working to drum up financial support for the project, to be called “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
“Israelis don’t seem to be into backing historical documentaries right now,” she lamented.
With supporters including four-time Emmy nominee Julie Cohen, who will serve as a creative consultant, Kuznetzov-Zalmanson has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 by Jan. 5.
“We believe that if we can raise the seed money from Kickstarter, then we can go on to successfully raise more funds,” she said. “I really don’t have a Plan B. If we don’t raise the money, I’ll cry non-stop for a week.”
‘To older Russian Jews, my parents are rock stars, but most Israelis and Americans don’t know who they are’
The window for making the film, she says, is rapidly closing. “It needs to be made now because the people in the story are getting older,” she explained.
In addition to hunting down archival footage, she plans on filming in Israel, the US and Russia, interviewing all the would-be hijackers who are still living. She also hopes to record the testimony of leaders of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, American organizations galvanized by her parents‘ ill-fated escape effort.
“I also want to find and interview the KGB agents who were involved in the event,” she said. “I’m curious to hear their side of the story.”
As a girl, Kuznetzov-Zalmanson was shielded from politics and history by her parents. “I didn’t understand much as a child,” she recalled. “I knew there was something special about my parents because they were admired by so many people, but I didn’t really know what it was all about. But as I got older, I began to understand more, and became more emotionally attached to their story.”
Kuznetzov-Zalmanson was born in Israel in 1980, a year after her father reunited with her mother upon being released in an exchange of Operation Wedding prisoners for three Soviet spies in US custody. Her mother had been released in 1974 in a Soviet-American prisoner trade that took place in Berlin.
The couple had met in 1969, after Kuznetzov was released from seven years in prison for making public political statements and publishing samizdat, or dissident, material. Then 29, Kuznetzov moved from Moscow to Riga, Latvia, where he met Zalmanson, a 25-year-old student active in the dissident and Zionist underground. They married in January 1970, and soon connected with a secret group in Leningrad that wanted to hijack a plane.
Most members of the group eventually backed out, but Kuznetzov and Zalmanson pressed on as the leaders of the Riga contingent. Kuznetzov served as the operational leader, while Zalmanson, who recruited her two brothers to the operation, worked as the organizer and face of the movement. They knew the dangers, but saw no other way to bring their struggle to light.
“If they had not denied us the right to leave Russia, we would have just gone to Israel and not thought of hijacking a plane,” Zalmanson says in the film project’s promotional video.
“In any case, they will arrest you,” Kuznetzov remarks. “OK, so you receive 15 years . . . It’s better to continue and hope it will be a big scandal.”
In the end, the would-be hijackers never made it onto the plane. Some were arrested at Leningrad’s airport, and others were caught in the woods nearby. Zalmanson was the only woman to go on trial, receiving 10 years of hard labor, including six months in solitary confinement. Kuznetzov’s sentence was death, but in late 1970, it was commuted to life in a maximum-security prison. It was later shortened to 15 years.
Although the trials were closed, word got out, leading to international protests that influenced the Kremlin to commute the prisoners’ sentences.
By the time Zalmanson made aliya to great fanfare in September 1974, 56,000 Soviet Jews had already been allowed to immigrate to Israel. (A total of 163,000 made it out during the 1970s). She quickly became a central figure in the struggle for Soviet Jewry and prisoners of conscience, fighting for the release of her husband and all the other dissidents. In 1976, she carried out a 16-day, one-woman hunger strike outside the United Nations.
Ironically, Zalmanson did not remain married to Kuznetzov for long after his release and arrival in Israel in 1979. The couple divorced in 1981, just a year after their daughter was born.
“When you think about it, nine of the 10 years of their marriage, my father was in prison,” said their daughter. “Both of them had strong ideals and were strong warriors. They were good together when it came to that, but not so much when it came to actually living together.”
As Kuznetzov-Zalmanson grew up in Gan Yavne, her mother worked as an engineer. Her father served as the editor of Vesti, the largest Russian-language newspaper in Israel. Her parents remained involved politically, but on a much smaller scale than before. Now 68, Zalmanson still lives in Gan Yavne, and has become a successful artist. Kuznetzov, 73, is a successful author and lives in Motza Illit.
“To older Russian Jews, my parents are rock stars, but most Israelis and Americans don’t know who they are,” the filmmaker said. “They changed history, and I’m trying to preserve it.”